Chicken Pirates: what’s up with those shoulder birds? September 15, 2020

Aargh! Are ye a chicken pirate? I kept chickens for over many years before I became a pirate. What took so long? Well, even though I’d had lots of chickens, none of them chose to be “shoulder birds,” until two of the birds from a 2016 batch of chicks from My Pet Chicken. “Brahma Mama,” my Buff Brahma Bantam, and “Piper,” my Barred Plymouth Rock, decided to jump on my shoulder when I would go into the run area and sit down. My “shoulder birds” made me a chicken pirate!

Barred Plymouth Rock and Buff Brahma Bantam on man's shoulder

Having chickens on your shoulder makes you feel super cool. I’m not sure why… Perhaps it’s the pirate mystique? Maybe it’s because you feel like they’re expressing their approval? “Hey, chicken-keeper person. You’re alright. I’m glad you’re around. Let me sit on your shoulder for a second to express my positive feelings about you.”

Maybe that last part is a little anthropocentric. I don’t know. But I do know having a “shoulder chicken,” makes you feel good. You other pirates know what I mean, right? You feel like that lady at the zoo that walks around with the snake draped around her neck like a shrug. She gets a lot of attention because there’s a cool critter hitching a ride; she’s a human Uber for a snake!

I know, a tiny bantam chicken is no boa constrictor, but shoulder birds still raise your coolness factor by a few degrees. At least I think so. But maybe I’m just a chicken nerd?

Man with toy duck on his head
Proof that I am a poultry nerd?

Having said that, this behavior does make me wonder: Why do chickens do this? Why do some birds have no reservations about hopping on your shoulder, while others won’t let you touch them?

It’s fascinating to me, and I’m going to list a few possible reasons below. But first, I have a warning:

Shoulder chickens can be dangerous!

I don’t want to disparage shoulder chickens, but I want you to know that having any animal that close to your face and ears means there is an element of danger involved. Your eyes and earrings may look like shiny beetles–animals that chickens love to eat. Trust me, you do NOT want a chicken pecking at your eyes! That could turn out badly. I mean, there’s a REASON pirates wear eye patches!

Chicken Pirate with a Barred Plymouth Rock chicken on his shoulder
Aargh, Matey! You got my ear!

Some people have had earrings forcibly removed from their ears, and not the fun way. I’m talking RIPPED OUT–ouch! I’ve also heard a story about a woman whose shoulder chicken pecked out AND SWALLOWED her earring. The woman searched the bird’s poop for a while (fun), but she never found the earring again. Is this how pirate chickens get their treasure?

So, having said that, PLEASE BE CAREFUL any time you have a chicken on your shoulder. Protect your ears, your eyes, your mouth, etc. You could get scratched, pecked, or seriously injured–okay? Maybe wear some eye protection and take out your earrings first. Or a full hazmat suit? Nah…that’s too much. If you have any other suggestions, please put them in the comments below.

Alright. Why do chickens do this? Here are some guesses:

  • Curiosity – If you have a flock, you know that chickens are very curious. Perpetual curiosity is essentially how they find food. It may be that some birds just want to know what’s up there on that tall person? Maybe he stores the mealworms on top of his head? That leads us to the next possibility:
  • Food – Here’s a story from one of our MPC peeps (that’s what we call our staff members): I had a chick a few years ago with a severe cross beak that I hand fed a lot. She would fly onto my shoulder whenever she saw me… I always assumed because she was hungry and knew food was coming.
Chicken Pirate with a bantam rooster on her shoulder.
A road trip with Monroe, the chicken
  • Seeking the highest/safest place to roost – One staff member shared this story about this behavior:

    I had a Blue Laced Red Wyandotte that would try to perch on my head any chance she got in the evening when I was closing the coop. She always does this right before bed when she’s looking to roost. I’m guessing it has something to do with the desire to roost high for safety…and maybe since I am her caregiver, I’m considered “safe.”
  • Comfort and/or Bonding – Perhaps some birds feel protected or more at peace when they’re close to you. Maybe they imprint on a particular person when they are young and they never really outgrew it. Here’s another staff member’s anecdote:

    Gracie always wanted to be on me, she would nibble, walk around, and settle down for a cuddle. I never encouraged it and could not stop her from doing this, either. She just liked it! However, she would not jump on other people, it had to be me.
  • Genetic Predisposition to Trust – Perhaps some birds are just wired this way. Each chicken has their own personality and some are more trusting than others. It could be they are just expressing a natural range of chicken personality characteristics.
  • Warmth in Winter? – This seems unlikely but it came to me in a brainstorming session. Who knows?
Chicken Pirate with a Blue Splash Marans on her shoulder.
A Blue Splash Marans with her Chicken Pirate

In summary:
Shoulder chickens are cool, but potentially dangerous. I don’t know exactly why they engage in this behavior, but I like it!

And finally, to all my fellow chicken pirates–AAARGH, mateys!

Do you have any shoulder chickens? Do you have any ideas about why some chickens like to sit on shoulders? Tell us your thoughts in the comment section.

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